Notes from the Island
January 1989


In June 1608 Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac River and was probably the first European to see Sycamore Island. In his Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, he wrote:

"Having gone so high as we could with the bote, we met divers Salvages in Canowes, well loaden with the flesh of Beares, Deere and other beasts, whereof we had part, here we found mighty Rocks, growing in some places above the grownd as high as the scrubby trees, and divers other solid quarries of divers tinctures: and divers places where the waters had falne from the high mountaines they had left a tinctured spangled skurfe, that made many bare places seem as guilded."

It's hard to imagine this area four hundred years ago before the dams and the canal. The water level must have been lower. The Island may have been larger. Walhonding Creek flowed directly into the Potomac. Indians lived along the banks and used canoes for transportation, not for recreation as we do today. In addition to bear, Captain John Smith mentions beaver, otter, marten and mink. Farther downriver he found an "aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with..."

Today we still have the beaver. I haven't seen them yet this winter, but they are clearcutting the maple saplings at the southern tip of the Island. I wrapped chicken wire around half a dozen trees so those buck- toothed rodents don't chew on them all. I think they are starting a lodge on a small island above Rupperts. The beaver also felled a good-sized tree across the canal 200 yards south of the pedestrian bridge.

I did see the opossum again. It had climbed a dead tree at the northern end of the Island. I was surprised to see it out in the middle of the day, but it didn't move as I approached. It had ratty gray fur, black ears, yellow cheeks and a pink snout. Holly and I saw an opossum a few nights later near the ferry landing on the Maryland shore, but I don't know if it was the same one.

The Potomac froze up in the middle of December. The ice was never thick enough to walk on, but it stretched across to the Virginia shore. Usually a channel remains open on the Virginia side for a while, but I think the low water, sluggish current and calm air allowed the river to freeze more uniformly.

The ice was thick enough so our cat Fred could cross over to the towpath. Sometimes. One evening he returned with an icicle mohawk down his back. Apparently he had fallen in, rescued himself and then licked the water off his fur, except where he couldn't reach down the back of his neck.

The Island survived the gale we had the other day. According to the news the wind was gusting up to seventy miles an hour. The river was covered with whitecaps and Broadwater looked more like the Bay. The wind blew in from the northwest and it must have caught the canoes by the swimming float at just the right angle and rolled them across the wildflower patch, because I found them 50-75 feet away from the tree where they had been stacked.

Holly sighted an adult bald eagle from the pedestrian overpass over the parkway. Crows were chasing it. We had seen some large birds in the woods near MacArthur and Walhonding, but we hadn't been able to identify them at a distance without our binoculars. We saw a tufted titmouse and some goldfinches and we still see an occasional heron, but I think they are about to leave for the winter. On the other hand the seagulls are arriving, bobbing up and down on Broadwater. There will be hundreds of them by February.

Yesterday we woke up to the sight of large wet snowflakes drifting past our window. The Island looked beautiful and peaceful. The snow quickly melted and turned to slush. But we're taking our cross-country skis out of the toolshed and getting prepared for a real winter blizzard. It won't be long now.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker